Nova Scotia

Pictou celebrating No. 2 Construction Battalion on 100th anniversary

Canadians are getting ready to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the First World War's famous all-black No. 2 Construction Battalion.

William White left slavery behind to fight for freedom in the First World War

Photo reminds us of Canada's first all-black battalion

6 years ago
CBC's Colleen Jones with No. 2 Construction Battalion's unique place in Canadian history 2:02

Canadians are getting ready to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the First World War's famous all-black No. 2 Construction Battalion this weekend.

The unit formed in Pictou on July 9, 1916, and on Saturday, people will gather to mark the centenary in Nova Scotia.

Keith Mercer is the cultural resource manager for Parks Canada at the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site. 

He says while Canada had no official anti-black policy for recruiting soldiers in the First World War, in practice officers rejected nearly every African Canadian from serving in the "white man's war."

Many African Canadians petitioned the federal government and armed forces and finally won permission to form Canada's first — and only — all-black battalion. The unit was called the No. 2 Construction Battalion.

The only all-black unit in the Canadian military, in a photo dated November 1916. Most of the enlisted men were from Nova Scotia. Reverend Doctor William Andrew White was the unit chaplain and served as a captain. (Army Museum Halifax Citadel)

As its soldiers weren't allowed to fight, they built roads and trenches to support Allied operations in Europe.

Born a slave, he fought for freedom

William White was the public face of that historic unit. He is being honoured as a Hometown Hero by Parks Canada.

"William White is a really important figure in Nova Scotia history. During the First World War, he was the only black officer and the chaplain for the No. 2 Construction Battalion," Mercer says. 

White was born to people who had been born in captivity in the slave-owning American south.

"He originally came up to Nova Scotia to study divinity at Acadia University," Mercer told CBC Nova Scotia's Information Morning on Tuesday.

After graduating, he worked at local churches and became the "natural leader for this battalion as a recruiting force and really as its face," he says.

"He played a very important role and is very well thought of in the African Nova Scotian community as standing up for black Nova Scotians' rights and freedoms and really their willingness and eagerness to fight for their country at a time when the country didn't really want them to fight."

Pastor at Cornwallis Baptist church

Mercer calls him a "voice of racial tolerance," a special person who could fight through racism in Nova Scotia to become one of the few black people who made it to university.

He was a strong voice "speaking out about black Nova Scotians, black Canadians, who wanted to fight, were eager to fight, and should have that opportunity."

White "was one of the very few black officers in the Canadian and larger Commonwealth Forces. So just in that regard he stands out," Mercer says.

William White died in 1936, but his impact on Nova Scotia lived on. (Courtesy White Family)

His diary survives — he wrote nearly daily to his wife and family. "That close connection never wavered."

After the war, he became pastor of Halifax's Cornwallis Street Baptist Church. "He became a foundational figure in the black community in Halifax. In every sense of the term, he's a heroic figure who had a massive impact on his community," Mercer says.

On Saturday, there will be a commemoration service in Pictou. It starts with an honour parade along Caladh Avenue at 10:30 a.m, followed by a formal ceremony in the deCoste Centre, hosting descendants of the battalion and participants from all across Canada and the United States.

This storage box was used by the No. 2 Construction Battalion (Army Museum Halifax Citadel)